National Nuclear Security Administration

NNSA develops ‘fingerprinting’ technique for exports to keep WMD building blocks out of the wrong hands

September 24, 2018

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By analyzing certain characteristics of an online form required for all exports, NNSA has developed "fingerprints" for dual-use goods, which allows authorities to focus on likely items.

Fingerprints can serve as evidence of a variety of crimes or illicit actions. In the nuclear security world, there are several such ‘fingerprints’ that indicate an attempt to ship products overseas for nefarious use. And like detectives matching prints to a database of known criminals, NNSA has developed a way to identify suspicious shipments of “dual-use” goods.

Dual-use goods are commodities that could be used for commercial purposes or to contribute to a foreign weapons of mass destruction (WMD) program. NNSA works with experts to keep adversaries from illicitly acquiring these goods from the United States, while ensuring that legitimate trade is not impacted.

Many of these commodities require an export license from the U.S. Department of Commerce before being shipped overseas. However determined proliferators may use methods like avoiding export licenses, lying to get a license, or using front companies and brokers to disguise the real use of items.

When an item is exported from the United States, an export declaration form is submitted to the U.S. Census Bureau, which shares this data with other U.S. agencies. Typically, these declarations describe the items in a shipment and contain a code number to help with the collection of tariffs. They also indicate if the commodity has an export license.

The United States exports an incredible volume of goods that law enforcement agencies must monitor, but the declarations offer an opportunity.

“We developed a basket of commodity ‘fingerprints’ for goods that could be used for nuclear-, missile-, and chemical/biological-related dual uses,” said Melissa Krupa, Director of NNSA’s Office of Nuclear Export Controls. “These fingerprints allow authorities to reduce the thousands of export declarations to a more manageable number without having to review them all.”

Each fingerprint is a profile used to identify a particular dual-use commodity using the fields of the shipping documents themselves. One example is a pressure transducer, which is a sensor used in uranium enrichment. It shares the same code number as other pressure sensors, such as those used to check car tires. But research revealed that transducers used in uranium enrichment typically cost more than $1,000, weigh a few pounds, and sell in quantities of a couple dozen at a time. This fingerprint distinguishes them from other pressure sensors that share the same code number, but are cheaper, lighter, and sold in larger quantities.

By applying the fingerprint profile, authorities can pare down thousands of shipments to just hundreds, reducing the work required to inspect the shipments and nab suspicious shipments of dual-use goods before they leave the country.

Read more about NNSA's Nonproliferation mission in the DNN Sentinel.